Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Was R. Ovadya Yosef's telling a noble lie* about the Carmel fires?

As the Carmel fire is brought under control, and the Jewish world considers ROY's remarks about what caused them,  it's worthwhile to remember the words of the Rambam, who wrote in Hilchos Taanis:
"It is a positive mitzvah from the Torah to sound and announce with trumpets anytime tragedy besets Klal Yisroel . . . But if they do not cry out and do not sound the shofar, but say "This happened to us because of natural causes, and this distress occurred coincidentally" this is the way of cruelty (derech achzarius) as it causes them to adhere to their evil deeds
Note the Rambam's word: CRUELTY. Not "philosophical error". Not "an act of heresy." Not "apikorsus." Cruelty.

And it's also worth noting that here the Rambam uses none of the angry language he reserves for people who believe that magic, witchcraft, sorcery, and superstition are real. Those people, he says, are "from among the fools and the stupid people." Those ideas, he says, are "based on false beleifs." But the person who imagines that tragedy is sometimes an unfortunate coincidence, we can presume from the words the Rambam chose to use, is neither foolish nor stupid, nor mistaken.

So why is he cruel?

The answer is in the last bit of the quote. The silver lining the Rambam saw in natural disasters was that they encouraged people to examine their sins and to repent. He worried that if people were permitted to believe that it was all happenstance, they would miss the opportunity to become better people, and instead "adhere to their evil deeds." The cruelty, per the Rambam, is not in denying God's providence, but in denying people the chance to improve themselves.

So, is this what Rav Ovdya Yosef was attempting to do? When he said the Carmel fire was the result of Shabbos desecration was he telling a noble lie?*

>> Notes and other mishigas after the jump

* A noble lie is an untruth spread by the elite for the sake of a higher purpose. Here I'm speculating that perhaps Rabbi Ovdaya Yosef said something he knew was untrue** for the sake of increased Shabbos observance.

** It's false that fires ONLY happen where there is shabbos desecration. The American West burns every year, and Rome, Chicago and several other cities have famously been destroyed by fire. Did Shabbos desecration factor into all of those disasters? How would you go about proving such a thesis?***

*** And if you will insist that proofs are unnecessary because we have the statement of Rav (as remembered by R. Judah, son of Rav Samuel) upon which to rely, I say again  look at the context of the statement on BT Shabbath 119b. There's a reason why it's lumped together with other explanation of the destruction of Jerusalem  -- and likewise, there's a reason why multiple explanations are recorded. Can you get there on your own? It's because neither the Sages, nor their redactors shared Rav Ovadya Yosef's certainty. That's why a multiplicity of opinions were given and kept for posterity.

Search for more information about [topic] at

No comments: